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Chasing Perfection Horacio Gutierrez combines superlative musicianship and technique. Maintaining the mix takes tremendous work.


HORACIO GUTIERREZ is practicing Liszt's "Feux Follets," the fifth and the most difficult of the composer's appropriately named "Transcendental Etudes." The playing hurtles along at an extraordinary tempo, diaphanous in texture and diabolical in elegance. And then -- at one of the most famously treacherous places in the piano repertory -- Gutierrez momentarily falters and grinds to a halt.

"Darling, don't stop," says his wife, Patricia Asher.

"I have to," the pianist says. "It's not perfect."

Before Asher gets the chance to say a word, her husband's hands are once more speeding up and down the keyboard. And then precisely at the same spot, he falters and once more returns to the beginning.

It is now almost 8: 30 p.m.; the pianist has been working on the first two minutes of "Feux Follets" since before 7 p.m. Except for a dinner break, he will continue to work intermittently on the piece until after 4 a.m. The problem he experiences comes in an almost impossibly difficult run of sixths, in which Liszt demands that the pianist execute a change in meter at the ever-accelerating tempo.

But Gutierrez's problem really isn't the notes. He can and has played "Feux Follets" flawlessly on earlier occasions. What is different tonight is the presence of a visitor in Gutierrez's living room. This is the first time, Asher says, that her husband has played the piece for ears other than hers.

"I'm getting a little nervous with someone here," he admits. Nervousness tightens the muscles, and when that happens, no pianist can escape unscathed the meter change in Liszt's fast-as-the-speed-of-light sixths.

Two things are nearly certain about Gutierrez's appearance tonight in Kraushaar Auditorium in Goucher College's annual Ruth Rosenberg Memorial Recital: The first is that the pianist, whom conductor Andre Previn ranks as one of the world's three greatest, will give superb performances of Haydn's Sonata No. 50 in C, Schumann's "Humoresque" and Liszt's Sonata in B Minor; the second is he won't perform "Feux Follets."

"I don't know when he's going to play it," Asher says. "All I know is that he won't do it until he can do it cold."

One of the best

Almost all great instrumentalists pursue the perfect performance, says Previn, one of Gutierrez's favorite collaborators in concerts and on records for more than 20 years. But the conductor adds that the Cuban-American virtuoso may labor under the weight of more-than-ordinary self-criticism.

"Quite apart from the sublime musicianship, there's that technique," says Previn, who is himself a world-class pianist. "It's the damndest thing -- the man can play anything. His octaves in the Tchaikovsky [Piano Concerto No. 1] make other pianists want to give up. But it has to be at least a little daunting for him as well."

"When you are young and still in school, you spend the whole year on only four or five pieces," Gutierrez says. "When you're a professional, the audience enters into things and it's another matter. When I did the Brahms Second Concerto in public for the first time, I remember thinking after the second movement, 'I still have two movements to go -- what am I going to do?' "

Gutierrez, 48, is one of several American pianistic baby-boomers who achieved fame at about the same time, and many aficionados rank him as the most gifted of the lot. Only Garrick Ohlsson approaches the ease with which Gutierrez solves technical problems and only Murray Perahia is as sensitive to a work's lyrical core and lays out its architecture with equivalent authority. Gutierrez is, moreover, the one who most reminds veteran concertgoers of the great Romantic pianists: He plays with quasi-vocal flexibility and his glistening tone commands myriad colors. And Gutierrez plays tchotchkes such as Moszkowski etudes or Liszt transcriptions beautifully enough to evoke the careless elegance and the derring-do of European culture before World War I.

Not as well-known

Yet Gutierrez is less well-known in his own country than most of his peers. The reasons include a steadfast refusal to hire flacks; enough principled self-discipline to decline tempting opportunities that might spread him too thin; and perhaps what the pianist jokingly calls his lack of self-discipline when it comes to food. The guy who resembles the late John Candy when he walks on stage jars with the pianist who plays as gracefully as the young Baryshnikov danced.

But someone as self-critical as Gutierrez is unlikely to care much about what the public (or music critics) think.

"If he hears someone playing in a bar, he'll actually think the guy is better," says Asher.

Pair of pianists

It is now after midnight and Gutierrez's work on "Feux Follets" is now interspersed with snatches of Chopin etudes and preludes.

"In this piece, every note is hard," Gutierrez says. "There's no place at which you can say, 'Now I'm home free.' "

Asher cautions him about playing too fast. "It won't sound good nTC in the hall at that speed," she says.

"What about the Arrau Tempo," Gutierrez says, teasing his wife, as he imitates the sluggish tempo at which Claudio Arrau performed the piece in the integral set of the etudes he recorded in his late 70s. But when Gutierrez brings the tempo back up, it's clear that he's heeded Asher's warning. The increased clarity and control that comes with a slightly slower tempo creates the illusion of greater speed.

Patricia Asher is herself a terrific pianist. Her old friend, tenor John Aler, remembers her as one of the most gifted and intelligent young pianists in the Washington-Baltimore area during their student years together at Catholic University. And while she rarely performs in public, she is the musician whose judgment Gutierrez most respects and trusts. She is at once his toughest critic and his biggest cheerleader.

They met as students at the Juilliard School. She was in one of Juilliard's much sought-after practice rooms when there was a knock on the door by a boy who was to leave for Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition and asked if he could use the piano for "just a minute or two" to practice "only six bars of music."

"I had been practicing the [Beethoven] 'Waldstein' Sonata and was having some trouble with the glissando octaves in the final movement," Asher says. "He said, 'Why don't you try this?' and he showed me how he did them. I thought, 'This is so wonderful -- this is the man for me!' "

Gutierrez smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

"Some people show off their muscles," he says. "I show off glissandos."

Gutierrez came back from Moscow a few weeks later with second prize in the Tchaikovsky and enough engagements for the start of a major career. Two years later, he and Asher married. That they have no children, that they travel together and that they share similar tastes for films, books and plays seems to bring them closer each year. Some of their friends say they don't know of another couple in their 25th year of marriage who so enjoy each other's company and conversation.

They certainly complement each other. Over the years, Gutierrez's passionate impulsiveness seems to have been tempered by Asher's thoughtful judiciousness.

There were times, when he was younger, Gutierrez admits, that his anger at himself "went over the top."

"Like the time he threw tapes of himself out the window," Asher says.

Those tapes included a Chopin F Minor Ballade that some Chopin fanciers swear is the best performance of that masterpiece ever recorded.

"I think that one made it across the street into the park," Gutierrez says.

A glance out the window from their seventh-floor apartment confirms that Central Park West is indeed a broad street -- but perhaps not too far a throw for a pianist strong enough to play the cadenza of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 as powerfully as Gutierrez does.

Plays what he loves

While he may not be as hard on himself as he was when younger, his opinions continue to be strong.

Like most important pianists, he largely eschews contemporary music; unlike others, he's not afraid to defend his decision.

"I don't want to play something unless I love it and 'love' is a very strong word," he says. "When an instrument has a repertory of great works as large as the piano's, learning a new piece had better be something that is going to give you enormous satisfaction."

Gutierrez likes some new music -- the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti, the piano music of George Perle and the piano concerto of Witold Lutoslawski -- most of which he has plans to perform.

But they will have to wait -- at least for now -- for Liszt's "Feux Follets," which, over the course of the evening and early morning, Gutierrez has been performing with increasing security and relaxation. In fact, the interspersions between "Feux Follets" have grown beyond Chopin etudes and preludes of short duration to include excursions into longer works such as Beethoven's Fourth Concerto and Chopin's B Minor Scherzo.

Finally, at about 4 a.m., Gutierrez starts the Liszt etude again. He is now getting through the tricky rhythms more easily than any pianist should expect at so advanced an hour.

And just as he is about to repeat the piece, Asher interrupts him.

"But it's still not perfect," the pianist protests.

"Horacio," Asher says firmly. "It's perfect enough."

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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